This is a former UCF colleague, someone I knew (although not well), and a supporter of our first and second Flickering Landscapes conferences, in Moab and in Orlando. I’m very sad for the children and their families affected by this. Almost always with cases like this, the ones that come to light are the tip of the iceberg.
This is one of those cases (I’m sure every case is, to those who know the people involved) in which I have to hold two things in my mind at the same time – the facts of the case, the lives harmed, the absolute revulsion of acts like this, the need for punishment, both at a personal level and to signal to society that these things need to stop now and will be dealt with harshly (and, it should be noted, they often aren’t dealt with evenly, across lines of race and class). And, the fact that this man is not a demon, he did good things through his life. I didn’t know him well enough to have seen any of this, but I’m guessing that those who did know him well didn’t see anything like this either.
The fact that I recognize that he’s not a demon does not mean that I think he shouldn’t be punished for these acts. They’re reprehensible. They should not happen. Actions like this are well documented to cause long-term harm. And as I say, these things are almost always a tip of the iceberg.
But I think there is an all-too-easy move that is made, to turn people who do terrible things into the “other”, into someone outside of normal or regular society. He’s not like us, none of us could ever do something horrible, and the fact that he did these horrible things is proof positive that he’s a demon.
That makes it easy for us. He’s a demon. That’s like saying he’s an alien. It’s like what used to be done racially, saying someone is from another place or race, and therefore morally inferior, different, evil, compared to us, who are the opposite. What if his evil is part of us, he’s not an “other”? Does our supposed virtue lie in the fact that we all have terrible urges but some of us have the willpower to resist them and others don’t? Does it lie in the fact that none of us really have the willpower to resist terrible urges, but some have been identified by society as reprehensible and indictable, whereas others aren’t like that? Or maybe some of us just haven’t been caught yet for our lacks of willpower.
Sterling has been caught. He should be caught for these things – they’re bad. So, how do we tell ourselves the story about who he is, and who we are in relation to him? It’s easy if you’ve never met someone, easy to think of them as the other. It’s less easy if you know them.